Thursday, 25 June 2015
The Expats by Chris Pavone
Kate forced the boys to pose at Checkpoint Charlie, in front of the YOU ARE NOW LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR sign on Friedrichstraße. Kennedy was here in ’63, on the same visit that included his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, delivered down in Schöneberg. Then in ’87, up at the Brandenburg Gate, Reagan challenged Gorbachev to tear down this wall.
Americans liked to deliver bombastic speeches here in Berlin. Kate followed that tradition with an impassioned version of her stump, If You Don’t Start Behaving Right This Instant. It was probably the chocolate that was the culprit, she announced. So a solution could be that they never eat chocolate, ever again, in their entire lives.
Their eyes were wide with terror; Ben started to cry. Kate relented, as usual, with a variation on “That’s not what I want. So don’t make me do it.”
They quickly recovered, as they always did. She set them off into the undulating rows of monoliths of the Holocaust Memorial, thousands of concrete slabs, rising and falling. “If you come to a sidewalk,” she called out, “stop!” The boys had no idea what this place was; there was no way she’d explain it.
observations: I had a terrific shock when I finished this book: I was amazed to find that Chris was a man, not a Christine. The book is so good on women-at-home-with the children, on the experience of a woman moving to a new country and trying to start up while her husband works – I am extremely impressed that male Chris could write on this subject so well.
The Expats is an excellent spy thriller, very easy to read and entertaining. Kate moves from Washington DC to Luxembourg as an expat wife: her husband’s job has brought them (with their two young sons) to this new home. She has given up her job to come – but as it happens her job was as a CIA operative. She has a long and quite violent history, about which her husband knows nothing.
She starts to notice odd things about their new life, and to wonder about some new friends, and to worry about her husband. And then things get really exciting. It’s a very good plot, one that gets more and more twisty as you go along. Quite often you can see what’s coming, but Pavone always has another trick up his sleeve.
But at the same time as being a good solid spy book, it is also absolutely brilliant on the nature of expat life, particularly for women. I think anyone who has lived that life – no matter which countries they started from or moved to – would love this book. It’s all there: the meetings at the school gate, the brisk sorting through the other women you meet to see which ones will gel, the coffee events, the endless gossip. The early days when you feel you haven’t spoken to a single adult who wasn’t paid to talk to you, and are trying to keep your children entertained in a country where you know no-one and don’t understand the routine. The fact that quite likely your spouse is having to work particularly hard and long hours in his new job, making everything that much worse. And then the slow improvement as you create a life for yourselves – it’s all there, with a CIA gloss.
Although quite hard-boiled events are mentioned, and are important, this book is not full of horrible or gruesome violence – another point in its favour in my view.
There were some nice clothes descriptions in the book, but in the end I wanted to use this passage, about a visit to Berlin. Another expat theme is that you go on trips all the time, ‘making the most’ of your host region (in this case the whole of Western Europe) - and the details of trying to make the children behave are so familiar, surely, to all parents taking their children on any trip.
Photos taken in Berlin last year by Audrey Stafford. Top is the Brandenburg Gate, below is the Holocaust Memorial.
There’s a lot more about Berlin, and spies, in the books of Len Deighton – the blog has been working its way through the Bernard Samson books in recent months. Click on the tabs below to see the entries.